Category Archives: Wisdom

Little Books, Big Ideas: Jackson Brown, Jr.

alex atkins bookshelf booksIf you visit a used bookstore, you might stumble upon an often neglected section: miniature books. A miniature book generally measures 3 by 4 inches. Some of the smaller ones are 1.5 inches by 2 inches. Unfortunately, miniature books are often dismissed due to their small size. “If they are so small, how can they possibly matter?” you think to yourself. Astute book lovers, however, know that even little books can contain big ideas — profound thoughts that can change your life.

In my periodic visits to used bookstores, I recently came across such a thought-provoking miniature book: On Things That Really Matter written by Jackson Brown, Jr. who wrote the New York Times bestseller Life’s Little Instruction Book: Simple Wisdom and a Little Humor for Living a Happy and Rewarding Life (1992). One of Brown’s central beliefs is that “when you take inventory of the things in life that you treasure most, you’ll find that none of them was purchased with money.” “Hey — isn’t there a song about that? you ask?” Yes, it is “The Best Things in Life are Free,” by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson from the musical 1927 Good News. The song was popularized by Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby for an earlier generation. But we digress.

Let’s turn back to Brown’s more recent miniature book. “There is a fundamental question we all have to face,” writes Brown, “How are we to live our lives; by what principle and moral values will we be guided and inspired? I once heard a minister compare life to a slippery staircase—an apt analogy. Slipping and sliding as we all do, we intuitively reach out for support, for anything to keep us from falling. There is a handrail. But its stability is determined by the values we have chosen to guide our lives. It is, therefore, no stronger, no more reliable, than the quality of the choices we have made.” Spot on, brother.

Brown’s little book is filled with big ideas — ones that will fortify the handrails of your life. Here are some of those ideas from notable thinkers and writers, as well as individuals who did not achieve fame but lived full, meaningful, and fulfilling lives and have wisdom to share:

“Treasure the love you receive above all. It will survive long after gold and good health have vanished.” (Og Mandino)

“Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an art but a habit.” (Aristotle)

“A thousand words will not leave so deep an impression as one deed.” (Henrik Ibsen)

“Do not care overly much for wealth or power or fame, or one day you will meet someone who cares for none of these things, and you will realize how poor you have become.” (Rudyard Kipling)

“I ve learned that the best way to have friends is to be the kind of friend you’d like to have.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that every person you meet knows something you don’t know. Learn from them.” (Anonymous)

“Never underestimate the influence of the people you have allowed into your life.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that a happy person is not a person with a certain set of circumstances but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that pain is inevitable; misery is optional.” (Anonymous)

“I’ve learned that I don’t need more to be thankful for; I need to be thankful more.” (Anonymous)

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What Advice Does Polonius Give His Son?

alex atkins bookshelf literatureAny parent who has a child going to college faces that moment when they must let his or her child leave the proverbial nest on a journey of discovery, to seek out those transformative experiences that will shape the edifice of young adulthood to be built on the foundation of familial values, traditions, and years of parental guidance. As your child hugs you and says goodbye, what final parental advice should you impart? If you are Polonius, the chief counselor to King Claudius (father of Prince Hamlet), you want to dispense some life lessons covering a wide variety of topics before your son, Laertes (brother to Ophelia), leaves to attend university in France. This is one of the most famous speeches in Hamlet — and certainly, its eloquence is matched by its verbosity.

Modern readers who read or listen to Polonius’ famous fatherly advice with its verbal flourishes and rather peculiar Elizabethan diction typically have one response: WTF? What is that Polo dude really saying? Can someone please translate this into modern English? Sure. But before we proceed, we should mention that in the context of the play, Polonius is considered to be a bit of a pretentious buffoon, much like a modern congressman or presidential spokesperson. Although Polonius is a sincere father, we have to question his intentions because the sum of his advice is rather ironic: as his son prepares to leave for college (ostensibly to take chances and explore the world, discover his true self, etc.), he tells him essentially to play it safe. Say what? You also have to question the timing: realize that Laertes is now in his late teens or early 20s, and it might be late for some of this advice. For this reason, some literary critics believe that Polonius is a bit of a hypocrite: he hasn’t been around for his son, and now as his son is leaving for college, Polonius decides to cram 18 years of fatherly wisdom into one speech. Thanks for nothin, Pops! Nevertheless, when the advice is taken individually, one has to admit that it is quite sound. So let’s break it down into bite-sized chunks and see if you agree.

Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay’d for. There; my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory

Meaning: Laertes, my boy, you’re still here? Get going! Your ship awaits. I give you my blessings (again). But, before you leave, I do have a few life lessons to share with you. You might want to record this on your iPhone so you don’t forget my longwinded speech. Besides, realize that you cannot count on Siri to dispense meaningful life lessons!

See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.

Meaning: Don’t just say what you are thinking (think before you speak!) and don’t act in haste (don’t be impulsive!). Be friendly to people but don’t go overboard and embarrass yourself.

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. 

Meaning: Know who are your true friends (news flash: they are not your Facebook friends or Twitter followers!). Really appreciate those friends and hang on to them. Don’t work too hard to make new friends — they will never be as good as the ones you already have.

Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

Meaning: Don’t be too quick to pick a fight, but if you do — hold your own. (And if you are going to be in a sword fight, make sure you are holding the sword with the poisoned-dipped tip!) Next, learn to be a good listener. Listen to people, but be circumspect. Listen to the views or opinions of others, but don’t necessarily share your own. It’s OK for someone to disapprove of you, but try not to judge others.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.

Meaning: Be a good consumer: spend as much as you can on nice clothes. Don’t waste your money on tacky clothes from strip mall outlets. Shop the good sales at A&F, Gap, etc. And since you are going to France, where fashion is king, remember that “clothes make the man.”

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Meaning: Don’t be stupid and lose a friendship by borrowing from or lending money to a friend. Trust me, you’ll lose both! Besides, borrowing money just makes you careless with money. Live within your means — or I am cancelling your credit cards!

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!

Meaning: And the most important lesson, of course, is to be true to yourself. (Of course, this last advice sort of contradicts all the very specific advice that he just dished out). That way you will not come off as a phoney (and you know how much Salinger’s Holden Caulfield hates those kind of people!) Goodbye, my boy, I hope my blessing helps you understand the life lessons I have shared with you. If not, you’ll end up in crazy town, like your sister.

So now that we have translated or paraphrased Polonius’ advice to Laertes into modern English, let us now ponder the inescapable question: is this the best advice that a father could give his son? What — or more precisely, what other — life lessons should Polonius have imparted to his college-bound son?

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It is the Man Who Craves More that is Poor

alex atkins bookshelf wisdom“The thought for today is one which I discovered in Epicurus; for I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, not as a deserter, but as a scout. He says: ‘Contented poverty is an honorable estate.’ Indeed, if it be contented, it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor. What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbour’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”

From Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Moral Letters to Lucilius) by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, known as Seneca the Younger (4 BC – 65 AD), Roman philosopher, dramatist, statesman, and tutor to the future emperor Nero. The Moral Letters to Lucilius (also referred to as Moral Epistles or Letters from a Stoic) are a collection of 124 fascinating, thought-provoking letters that were written by Seneca during his retirement, after being an adviser to Emperor Nero. The letters, addressed to the procurator of Sicily, Lucilius, but were intended for a wider audience, provide guidance on morality and emphasize the themes of Stoicism. Although Stoicism was founded by Zeno of Citium in 3 BC, it was popularized by the works and teachings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. Some of the main teachings of Stoicism are that life is brief and happiness is found in the moment, virtue (like wisdom) is the only good, judgment should be based on behavior rather than words, and discontent is due to one’s impulsive dependency on reflexive senses rather than logic, and not being in accord with nature brings dissatisfaction.

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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The Wisdom of the 12 Men Who Walked on the Moon

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomIt is perhaps the most elite club on the planet Earth — out of the 7.5 billion people that populate this planet, only a fortunate few — 12 courageous men — have travelled the more than 240,000 miles to land and walk on the Moon. Of those 12 astronauts, as of July 20, 2019 (the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing), only four are still alive: Buzz Aldrin (89 years old), David Scott (87), Charles Duke (83), and Harrison Schmitt (84). If there ever was a moment that united the entire planet, it was that fateful day that Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon at 2:46 UTC. NASA estimated that 500 people around the globe watched this event, transfixed to their television sets. It is one of those magical, memorable moments. Ask anyone from that generation: “Where were you when man landed on the Moon,” and that individual will travel back in time and happily recollect details from that glorious day.

Despite their different upbringing, training, and character, what united these 12 men, apart from this incredibly ambitious, complex, and risky mission, was the opportunity to see the planet Earth like no other human being — a truly global, or more accurately — universal perspective. As you read through their quotations, one thing becomes crystal clear: the experience of standing on the gray, barren lunar terrain allowed them to see the Earth in an entirely new way — to behold its stunning beauty, but realize its fragility. Each of them was profoundly impacted by this powerful, yet humbling, experience and they carried this unique perspective, this worldly insight, for the rest of their lives. One would wish that every world leader, military leader, and politician would have a similar experience and revelation — for the sake of their country, and the world at large. Astrophysicist Carl Sagan summarized it best in a beautiful, eloquent speech delivered at Cornell University in 1994: “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Neil Alden Armstrong (Apollo 11, Commander)
“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Edwin Eugene “Buzz” Aldrin (Apollo 11, Lunar Module Pilot)
“I don’t know why people who have not been on rockets continue to ask, ‘you’re not scared?’ no we were not scared… until something happens, then it’s time to get scared.”

Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr. (Apollo 12, Commander)
“I made the remark when we went over the top, ‘eureka, Houston, the Earth is really round,’ and when i got back to Houston, I got all this mail from members of the Flat Earth Society telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about.”

Alan LaVerne Bean (Apollo 12, Lunar Module Pilot)
“Since that time, I have not complained about the weather one single time. I’m glad there is weather. iIve not complained about traffic, I’m glad there’s people around… boy we’re lucky to be here. Why do people complain about the Earth? We are living in the Garden of Eden.”

Alan Bartlett Shepard Jr. (Apollo 14, Commander)
“I realized up there that our planet is not infinite. It’s fragile. That may not be obvious to a lot of folks, and it’s tough that people are fighting each other here on Earth instead of trying to get together and live on this planet. We look pretty vulnerable in the darkness of space.

Edgar Dean “Ed” Mitchell (Apollo 14, Lunar Module Pilot)
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. you want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘look at that, you son of a bitch.’”

David Randolph Scott (Apollo 15, Commander)
“It truly is an oasis and we don’t take very good care of it. And I think the elevation of that awareness is a real contribution to, you know, saving the Earth if you will.”

James Benson “Jim” Irwin (Apollo 15, Lunar Module Pilot)
“The Earth reminded us of a christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God.”

John Watts Young (Apollo 16, Commander)
“NASA is not about the ‘adventure of human space exploration,’ we are in the deadly serious business of saving the species. All human exploration’s bottom line is about preserving our species over the long haul.”

Charles Moss “Charlie” Duke Jr. (Apollo 16, Lunar Module Pilot)
Tthat jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space. The only people that have seen the whole circle of the Earth are the 24 guys that went to the Moon.”

Eugene Andrew Cernan (Apollo 17, Commander
“The night before I flew, I wrote a letter to Tracy, just in case: to my darling daughter Tracy — Trace, you’re almost too young to understand what it means to have your daddy to go to the moon… I want you to look at the Moon because when you are reading this, daddy is almost there.”

Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt (Apollo 17, Lunar Module Pilot)
“Working on the Moon is a lot of fun. It’s like walking around on a giant trampoline all the time and you’re just as strong as you were here on Earth but you don’t weigh as much. You only weigh one-sixth of what you weigh on the Moon. even with the suit and the backpack, my total weight was only 61 pounds.”

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For further reading:

The Wisdom of Russian Proverbs

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomLike every people, the Russians have their own accumulation of wisdom that has been passed on from generation to generation through stories, fables, and proverbs. I recently came across a little book of Russian Proverbs published by Peter Pauper Press (try saying that fast three times) in 1960. Peter Pauper Press, founded in 1928, publishes small gift books, including books of quotations and proverbs. Here is some timeless wisdom found in their collection of Russian proverbs:

Where the needle goes, the thread follows.

Counting other people’s money will never make you rich.

Slander, like coal, will either dirty your hand or burn it.

Wash a pig as much as you like, it will return to the mud.

Learn good things — the bad will teach you by themselves.

Better bread and water, than cake and trouble.

No apple is safe from worms.

If you don’t know how to be a good servant, you won’t know how to be a good master.

A guest should not have to honor his host; a host should honor his guest.

The fool makes ropes out of sand.

Once a word is out of your mouth you can’t swallow it again.

Walk fast and you can overtake misfortune; walk slowly and it will overtake you.

You can measure your cloth twelve times, but cut it only once.

Afraid or not, you will have to face your fate.

Don’t take your own rules when you enter a strange monastery.

Even if Truth is buried in a gold box, it will break out and come to light.

A good reputation sits at home, a bad one runs about town.

In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Presents are cheap, true love is dear.

He who rushes at life dies young.

Love your neighbors but put up a fence.

A kind word now is better than a pie later.

If you never see new things, you can go on enjoying the old.

Which is your favorite?

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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A Funeral Poem for a Friend

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomThis post is in honor of a dear friend, a former police officer and detective, who lost his 15-month battle to brain cancer this past evening. He endured several critical operations, agonizing pain, and physical impairment in order to spend as much time as he could with his adoring wife and five children. “It’s too early for me to go,” he said to me soon after the dreadful diagnosis. Through it all, he faced it with tremendous strength and courage, knowing that he was never alone — his close-knit family was with him each step of the way. Additionally, he had the support of his friends, law enforcement community, and church community. And he had his faith that guided him through the best of days and the worst of days. He was a kind, generous soul, possessing a contagious sense of humor, and found ample opportunities to make anyone who was around him laugh, even as he struggled with a terminal illness.

I will never forget our last visit a few weeks ago. He was heavily medicated from a recent surgery. We enjoyed a short visit, sharing many happy memories. Because he couldn’t talk, he mostly listened and nodded, opening his eyes from time to time. Before I left, I told him that I loved him and he became alert for the first time — his tired eyes looked up to meet my gaze. He nodded and managed a faint smile. Since he was too weak to speak, he slowly lifted his hand in the air as if to catch the words that were floating in the air, and then he made a slight swiping motion with his index finger, as if to flick the words back to me. It was the last time I would see him alive.

I am reminded of the poem “Miss Me, But Let Me Go” that is often mistakenly attributed to British poet Christina Rossetti. (Rossetti wrote a poem, titled “Remember,” with a slightly different message.) Although the author of “Miss Me, But Let Me Go” is not known, the poet captures so beautifully and so succinctly one of the great lessons of life — losing a friend. The poem reminds us to rejoice that some divine serendipity brings two people together so that they can travel some portion of the long road of life together. The poem also reminds us to rejoice in the memories that were created during that time. Of course, it is difficult to see that clearly through the fog of mourning and tears. Indeed, of all of life’s lessons, letting someone we love go is perhaps one of the most difficult and painful to learn.

Miss Me, But Let Me Go

When I come to the end of the road
And the sun has set for me
I want no rites in a gloom filled room
Why cry for a soul set free?
Miss me a little, but not for long
And not with your head bowed low
Remember the love that once we shared
Miss me, but let me go.
For this is a journey we all must take
And each must go alone.
It’s all part of the master plan
A step on the road to home. When you are lonely and sick at heart
Go to the friends we know.
Laugh at all the things we used to do
Miss me, but let me go.By Unknown Author

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The Wisdom of Anthony de Mello: Enlightenment

alex atkins bookshelf wisdomAnthony de Mello (1931-1987) was an Indian Jesuit priest, spiritual teacher, psychotherapist, writer, and public speaker. He founded the Sadhana Institute of Pastoral Counseling in Poona, India in 1972. Fr. de Mello earned international acclaim for his profound spiritual insights, via the mystical traditions of East and West, and his unique approach to the inner life. He was best known for his mesmerizing storytelling — using insightful stories, parables, and humor — as well spiritual exercises to lead people to greater awareness (self-discovery), helping them to be more in touch with their body, sensations, and living life more fully. Fr. de Mello believed that humanity could learn from every religious tradition. In his stories, when he speak of the Master, he is not just referring to Jesus, following the Catholic/Christian tradition; de Mello writes “He is a Hindu Guru, a Zen Roshi, A Taoist Sage, a Jewish Rabbi, a Christian Monk, a Sufi Mystic. He is a Lao-Tau and Socrates. Buddha and Jesus, Zarathustra and Mohammed. His teaching  is found in the seventh century B.C. and the twentieth century A.D. His wisdom belongs to East and West alike.” Remarkably, the Catholic Church did not appreciate this synthesis of East and West, especially the consideration of Jesus as a master alongside many others (particularly the Buddha, which de Mello respected a great deal), the promotion of other spiritual works other than the Bible, and the belief that you didn’t need religion to achieve self-discovery and enlightenment. (Interestingly, there are significant similarities between the beliefs of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, mystic, theologian, scholar of comparative religion, and author of The Seven Story Mountain, and de Mello.) Consequently — and rather ironically considering that Jesus taught in parables and also broke with the traditions and thinking of his time — the Catholic Church condemned his writings. Unfortunately, this had an unintended consequence: it increased the sale and publications of his work (20+) — many which were published posthumously. Here is an excerpt from One Minute Wisdom, published in 1985), entitled “Enlightenment.”

The Master was an advocate both of learning and of Wisdom.

“Learning,” he said when asked, “is gotten by reading books or listening to lectures.”

“And Wisdom?”

“By reading the book that is you.”

He added as an afterthought: “It is not an easy task at all, for every minute of the day brings a new edition of the book!”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: One Minute Wisdom by Anthony de Mello
Taking Flight by Anthony de Mello
The Heart of the Enlightened by Anthony de Mello

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